Home Page It looks like Simple Simon is the one left owing the £5 note again 14/02/14

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Hart of the Matter

I dare say we shall hear quite a lot about democracy over the next few days as the battle is fought out over if, and how far, our council tax should be subject to a rise – something we have hardly seen for the past three or four years.


In the end it is how you view tax which puts you on one side or the other of the political divide in Western democracies. One of the favourite lines of protest about any government or council spending anything is that this is ‘our’ money, and not money which belongs to the government or council.


The logical argument from that is that we don’t like to see ‘our’ money spent on anything which we would not ourselves spend it on if we had the choice. It’s a very personal argument, despite the wild claims of both sides that ‘no one’ or ‘everyone’ agrees this or that point of view.


That old, old complaint from people with no children of school age who don’t see why they should have to pay a large percentage of their council tax towards the education of other people’s children is just the most obvious example of the debate.


Somewhere along the line the issue has to be faced of whether or not we believe in the community and our responsibility to contribute to it. Is it a holistic, or global, world in which everything affects everything else, or is it possible to partition areas off and cut them out like an appendix, without impairing the rest of the body’s functions?


And even if we are looking for the good of everyone, or at least of our own country, county, borough or town, how far do we judge it to be beneficial to cut or increase spending on particular functions or activities?


I doubt if many Britons would have advocated ‘our’ money being more heavily devoted to such economically unproductive activities as, say, dredging the Somerset Levels drains or the River Thames on a regular basis.


But when floods come we ask why on earth these things have not been carried out because they appear obvious to any sensible person.


The whole argument of whether or not a certain economic viewpoint is beneficial has been clouded in recent years by the economic crash and the arrival of ‘austerity’. Suddenly we were supposed to see cuts as not only beneficial to ourselves as taxpayers by keeping those taxes down, but beneficial to the whole country as getting us back on track.


In fact, those who advocated spending any extra, even to preserve the status quo, were seen as damaging the overall progress of the national economy. We were all in it together and that meant we all had to suffer privation, and cuts in spending – all that is, except those whose particular abilities were so outstanding that it would plunge the country into further crisis if they were allowed to leave rather than being paid fat bribes to stay and carry on as before.


In the true spirit of ‘localism’ this argument has now devolved to a very local level indeed, as it was bound to do. As more and more tiers of government and agencies for the provision of services had their resources axed, the shortfall was bounced down and down until it reached the very bottom – the parish councils.


Proudly the Government has ensured that Very Important People stay in this country by cutting their taxes, and helped very low income people by taking them out of tax altogether. They’ve saved themselves wads of this cash by just not giving anywhere near as much to local councils.


The councils, first at county level and then at borough level, have proudly also managed not to increase their tax levels by privatising, downsizing, or offloading services as hard as they can go.


So everyone has done really well and, guess what?, we still have most of our local services either in place or in the process of being replaced. It’s magic, a bit like the old pantomime trick with a £5 note.


And, as with that trick, the flaw in the argument eventually becomes apparent when the £5 note is owed by poor old Simple Simon, the idiot. In this case, for Simple Simon, read parish or town council.


We have reached the position where our town council either puts up its council tax and gets the blame, or cuts back on the services which it has been picking up for everyone else, and gets the blame. No blame can be attached to anyone else because they are not costing anyone anything extra and, guess what?, they are hardly responsible for any of this stuff anymore anyway.


And looking around to save the odd thousand pounds or two here and there at parish level is like putting an sticking plaster on a shotgun wound, because if the dam doesn’t break this year, it will next year or the year after. The whole system is now so undermined that failings are rising as inexorably to the surface as the water table is in the south of England.


The outcome is that we all slide further and further into misery caused by failing service provision and the self-defeating blame game caused by the resulting frustration.


Apparently, a survey has established the happiest places to live in the world are the Scandinavian countries, where the winters are long and the climate rugged. Why? Because they don’t have to worry about any of these things. They don’t screw their workers and most people routinely pay more than 50 per cent income tax, plus all sorts of other contributions.


Their services work, taking frustration out of their lives and letting them get on with their prosperous economies. I believe Finland is the only country in Europe to have retained its ‘triple A’ rating on the money markets. If I was Scottish, I might vote to join up with them.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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